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Could a female be as heroic as a male character in Greek tragedy?

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Could a female be as heroic as a male character in Greek tragedy?  Illustrate your argument from at least 3 different plays studied.

Both ancient Greek literature and the mythology it originated from are dominated by male protagonists encompassing the ‘heroic’ status.  The earliest and perhaps most significant examples of this can be seen in the epics attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey.  In the Iliad we are presented with Achilles, a Greek warrior most noted for his strength in battle and quest for kleos; In the Odyssey we have Odysseus, a warrior nonetheless, yet who relies on metis and piety to succeed.  Both can be defined as ‘heroic’ in the sense that their positive attributes and strengths are almost godlike, yet they have flaws which are distinctly human.  This notion can be seen in tragedy; indeed, a tragic hero is often defined by his error in judgement or action.  The question of whether a female can be deemed truly heroic within the tragic genre is a complex one: women in the ancient society were born into subordinance, and had little role or significance outside of the home; yet, in tragedy, females were often written as major and complicated characters whose actions determine the outcome of the play.  For the purpose of this essay, I will primarily focus my attention on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Euripides’ Medea, and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, written in c. 458, 431, and 430BC respectively.

               Ancient Greek society at this time was, for the most part, defined by distinct social roles.  Whilst men dominated politics and engaged in public events in the wider polis, a woman remained in the home, under the submission of her husband with whom she was expected to produce heirs.   This order of things at the very least ensured stability of both the polis and oikos.  Unsurprisingly, as within society itself, women within literature were often defined by the roles expected of her, with dire consequences should she ever reject these roles.  Clytemnestra is perhaps one of the most infamous female characters throughout Greek tragedy.  Her status in Agamemnon as villainess might at first glance be justified – she abandons her feminine role of wife and mother and violently slays her husband and his young concubine, apparently out of jealousy.  And yet, we must also acknowledge that to an extent, her violent tendencies were only expressed when her role as wife was at threat: by bringing young and beautiful Cassandra into the family home, Agamemnon inadvertently forces his wife out of the role she was accustomed to.  Medea’s own speech seems relevant here, when she too finds herself cast aside by her husband: ‘Women are weak and timid in most matters.  The noise of war, the glint of steel, makes her a coward.  But hurt her marriage and there’s no bloodier spirit.’ (Medea 262-5)

        It is the Watchman, stationed on the palace roof who first introduces us to Clytemnestra: ‘...in whose woman’s heart a man-like will breeds hope.’ (Ag. 10-11)  This straight away suggests, albeit subtly, she is a woman with the potential to express independent, masculine characteristics.   Nevertheless, her life is shaped by the choices her husband makes; she is constantly at his mercy.  Perhaps Agamemnon’s cruellest act is the sacrifice of their only daughter Iphigenia in order to win the war at Troy.  In doing so he hopes to strengthen the male domain of the polis, without much thought to how this would disrupt Clytemnestra’s domain of the oikos.  By taking Cassandra as a war prize, Agamemnon adds further insult to injury, ultimately leading to his own downfall.  Shomit Dutta attempts to somewhat justify Clytemnestra’s violent act of revenge: ‘Aeschylus thus gives her a double motive for her actions: as a mother, she seeks to avenge the death of Iphigenia; as a wife, she seeks to punish Agamemnon for taking a mistress.’ (2004, 7)  

        It might certainly seem reasonable, then, to suggest that the violent slaying of her husband holds heroic implications.  Agamemnon is by all means, an unpleasant character – not only for sacrificing his own daughter, but from the little time he spends onstage, he could easily be described as arrogant.  We are told by the Chorus of his virtuous nature, and yet towards Clytemnestra, he shows nothing but contempt.  We must therefore consider whether his death is justified, and whether Clytemnestra herself deserves the title of ‘heroine’ which has frequently been debated.   According to Aristotle, the best type of tragic hero exists between the extremes of good and bad in character.  (Poetics 13)  Certainly, we can allow ourselves to feel significant sympathy for Clytemnestra in her situation, yet Aeschylus presents us with a character with no evidently ‘good’ qualities.  Her attempts to be a good wife are minimal and false, and any sympathy we might feel for her is undermined in the knowledge that Clytemnestra had herself taken a lover whilst her husband was away.  Francine Viret Bernal takes a less-than-sympathetic approach to this character.  The moment she picks up the axe – her weapon of choice – she notes, she takes on a wholly masculine image.  In this sense, this is her ultimate flaw, and she is no longer protected under her womanhood.  Bernal suggests, ‘‘...by her excessive behaviour, she demonstrates her incapacity to fulfil the role she has chosen for herself.’ (1993, 93)  We might consider the killing of her husband an attempt at gaining some sort of equality, and not just revenge, but this in itself must fail.  A struggle between the genders is a constant theme throughout Agamemnon.  Bernal continues:

        ‘Through her behaviour, she will bring about her own death... We can see that the partners must adhere to the sexual roles assigned to them according to the customs of Athenian society.  Trying to change the social order is to endanger a larger order, which men and gods unite to uphold... In that order, Clytemnestra embodies every form of danger.’ (103)

        Clytemnestra fails from the start to uphold the attributes which women were defined by – she is neither passive nor submissive, and by choosing her lover over her husband, disrupts entirely the established order.  We can certainly accept that Clytemnestra is a victim of circumstance – but Agamemnon’s death at her hands is far worse than the crime inflicted upon her, and indeed she kills an entirely innocent character in Cassandra.  Aeschylus makes us straight away aware, then, that she must be punished – in the second play of the Oresteia trilogy, she in turn is killed by her avenging son.  Were she a male character, her own revenge killing might be deemed more appropriate, yet her position as female, wife, and Queen makes the act all the more heinous.  She cannot possibly be deemed heroic in the truest sense: she seeks to appease her own misfortunes, and not do so for the greater good.

        It seems appropriate here to compare Clytemnestra to the Odyssey’s Penelope.  Penelope is too left without her husband whilst he is at war – yet she remains faithful, hospitable to her unruly suitors, passive, and uses her innate cleverness to protect her marriage: she is the seemingly perfect wife – and so, the outcome for her must be a positive one.  If her husband is the hero of the story, she is his suitable female counterpart.  The stark contrast between Penelope and Clytemnestra is emphasised in the Odyssey itself on at least two occasions, by way of the ghost of Agamemnon: ‘surely you won yourself a wife endowed with great virtue,’ (XXIV.193)  and perhaps even more bluntly, ‘and yet you, Odysseus, will never be murdered by your wife.’ (XI.444)

        It is clear to see, then, from the example of Agamemnon that the lines between what is considered heroic and what is villainous can often be blurred; no more so is this the case than in Euripides’ most famous play, Medea.Medea recounts the tale, already well known in Greek mythology, of the wife of Jason who murders her own children when he abandons her and takes another wife.  Her devotion to her husband cannot be undermined – not only was she willing to abandon her homeland of Colchis, she abandoned her family too, killing her own brother to slow down their pursuers as she fled with Jason.  Following the death of King Pelias – of which she was ultimately responsible – they are exiled to Corinth.  It is the nurse who introduces us to Medea’s current situation within the opening speech:

        ‘Coming here as in exile, she has earned the people’s welcome, while to Jason she is all obedience – in marriage that’s the crucial thing... but now her world is turned to hate... Jason has betrayed his own sons – and my mistress – for a royal bed.’ (11-18)

        It is this pivotal line which reveals the motive for Medea seeking revenge.  We are already aware that she had given up everything of hers to ensure his success – and now that he has chosen a new wife – a princess of Corinth no less – Medea is left completely isolated.  Furthermore, it is her status as both a non-Greek and sorceress which leaves her all the more at risk in this foreign land.  By leaving her, Jason commits the ultimate insult, and Medea – once devoted and dutiful – becomes vengeful and all the more aware of the vulnerability of her sex.  She proclaims, ‘surely, of all the creatures that have life and will, we women are the most wretched.’ (230-31)

        The speech she makes from this line onward is truly remarkable in the sense that Euripides, through Medea, provides a voice for the second-class, female foreigner.  This is something Edith Hall considers carefully in her discussion of women in tragedy, suggesting he allows himself to imagine the emotions of an abandoned wife.  She continues,

‘Euripides even seems to have been aware that much of the blame for the bad reputation of women in myth must be laid at the feet of male poets who had created them.  His Medea includes a supremely negative portrait of a vituperative, vindictive, and murderous female, which could only be the product of a patriarchal society.’ (1997, 121)

With this in mind, we must question whether Medea is in any way justified for monstrous act of killing her two young children.  She certainly earns initial sympathy from both the nurse and the women of Corinth (as the Chorus) – who condemn Jason’s actions more than once.  By killing her sons – as well as King Creon, and Jason’s new bride – she attempts to leave him in the same predicament she finds herself in: alone.  In her sons, she kills off his current heirs, and in his bride, any chance for new ones.  This is when again the issue of social roles comes into play: Medea was willing to act in the extreme to ensure her marriage to Jason remained secure and therefore fulfil her role as wife and mother; when he found a new wife, she was willing to act in equal extremes to punish him.  Caroline Dunham takes a somewhat feminist approach to the matter, suggesting that when portraying the ancient, masculine world, women could never succeed off their own merit:

‘Up to the point of her crime, Euripides portrays Medea as the stereotypically perfect female within the male power structure of his dramatic universe... Euripides underplays Medea’s potential for violent revenge in favour of an insistence upon her passivity and helplessness.’ (1984, 55)

Medea’s crimes, then, are the direct result of Jason’s own failures as a husband.  We can, furthermore, accept that she is a sympathetic character – indeed, the majority of minor characters within Medea take her side when learning of her grievances.  Can we see any heroic qualities within her?  Certainly in the modern sense we must accept that she can be deemed brave – brave for leaving behind the security of her homeland, and for refusing to concede to Jason when he attempts to justify his actions.  Her struggle is not one on the battlefield, rather, a personal struggle against an injustice.  We might also compare her ‘cleverness’ to that of Odysseus – both use their cunning intelligence to overcome adversity.  Nevertheless, as Patricia Easterling makes clear, by transforming herself from a woman in despair to a woman with the distinctly male attributes of bloodlust and rage, she would further antagonise the ancient Greek audience: ‘Medea’s famously unfavourable comparison of the terrors and pains of a woman’s childbirth to the frontline battle experience of a male hoplite was no doubt undercut somewhat by her status as a woman, barbarian and sorceress, in short, an outsider.’ (1997, 18)  Finally, H. D. F. Kitto does not believe Medea could possibly fit into Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero.  An Aristotelian tragic hero, in the simplest sense, must be an intermediary between good and bad – not so saintly whose downfall would be simply too revolting, and not so bad that their downfall is welcome and no longer tragic.  ‘Medea’, writes Kitto, ‘is no character compounded of good and bad, in whom what is bad tragically brings down what is good, and we certainly cannot fear for her as for one of ourselves.’  (Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study, USA, 191) – We cannot accept her as a true hero, her flaws are just too great.  Though her gender is her ultimate weakness, her villainous nature is intensified by the fact her thirst for revenge outweighs her remorse in killing her children.

        It is only in OedipusRex where we see female characters that are happy to comply with their secondary role – most notably, queen Jocasta.  Oedipus Rex retells the most infamous story of  mistaken identity – of a man who unintentionally fulfils the prophecy given to him: that he would kill his father and marry his mother.   Though Jocasta appears at only brief intervals, she is nonetheless a woman who commands respect.  She does, however, lack the independence of Clytemnestra, and the cleverness of Medea: her good fortunes depend on her husband, on whom she is socially reliant.  She at first glance appears to be a woman perfectly suited to her roles as wife, mother, and queen of Thebes.  When we are first introduced to her, she takes on the role of peacekeeper, settling a quarrel between Oedipus and her brother: ‘I wonder you’re not ashamed, airing your private troubles in this time of distress.’ (634-5)

        Perhaps more significantly, it is she who first realises Oedipus’ true identity before he does.  When the truth is revealed to all, she takes her own life. Her suicide is of utmost significance in understanding her character.  She takes her own life because the shame when the prophecy is revealed to be true is overwhelming – but it is debatable whether it is the public or private shame that causes her to do so, and the question is often raised: would she have continued the incestuous marriage if Oedipus remained unaware?  The concept is a hideous one, and yet she does, of course, try to stop Oedipus from finding out the truth.  It can be argued that in this way her suicide is an entirely selfish act – when Oedipus discovers he has fulfilled the prophecy, she loses both her power and position, and the shame is overwhelming.  S. Wiersma argues is it the concept of the public shame Jocasta will be faced with which causes her to end her own life, ‘Jocasta’s behaviour displays no trait of inconsistency... [her] suicide is part and parcel of her character.’ (1984, 41) In this sense, it is her public image and the battle for self-preservation which are of utmost important to her.  However, if we take the point of view that it is her private shame which results in suicide, her character becomes all the more sympathetic – we might compare her reasoning to kill herself to that of Ajax, who also cannot bear the shame of consequences which were not under his control.  However, unlike Ajax, Jocasta does not represent tragic ‘heroism’ for her suicide, rather, she is a character the ancient audience might both pity and distrust.

As we can see, women are of great significance within many Greek tragedies, and they encompass characters from many walks of life.  Greek tragedies in turn provide an insight into how women were treated and expected to behave.  From birth, a woman’s life was shaped and controlled by her male counterparts, her role being only to provide healthy heirs.  We might agree that certain tragedies portray the devastation should a woman ever find herself out of the natural order: for Clytemnestra, she rejects her womanly roles altogether; Jocasta creates an ill-fated family unit with her own son.  And so, it would simply not be appropriate for a woman within tragedy to claim any sort of ‘equality’ with a man, let alone a hero.  A hero in the truest sense must have the freedom, strength and ambition to alter circumstance – and these are attributes which women were simply not at liberty to possess.


Aeschylus, trans. Vellacott, P., (1956), Agamemnon, London.

Bernal, F. V., (1997), 'When painters execute a murderess: the representation of Clytemnestra on Attic vases', in A. O. Koloski-Ostrow, Naked Truths: Women, Sexuality, and Gender in Classical Art and Iconography, New York.

Cartledge, P., (1997), ‘Deep Plays: theatre as process in Greek civic life’, in Easterling, P. E., (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, Cambridge.

Dunham, C. A., (1984), ‘Medea: Hero or Heroine?’, JWS 8, 54-59.

Dutta, S., (2004), Greek Tragedy, London.

Euripides, trans. Vellacott, P., (1963), Medea, London.

Hall, E., (1997), ‘The sociology of Athenian tragedy’, in Easterling, P. E., (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, Cambridge.

Sophocles, trans. Watling, E. F.,(1947), Oedipus Rex, London.

Wiersma, S., (1984) ‘Women in Sophocles’, Mnemosyne 37, 25-55.

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